It's Not Business As Usual, But NASA Keeps Flying During Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 25, 2020

From Texas Standard:

Like every other business or government agency, NASA is operating very differently right now because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the space agency does have ongoing missions, including a scheduled launch next month that will send astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station.

Johnson Space Center in Houston is operating at stage 3 of NASA's four-stage pandemic response plan. And like NASA, private space companies have been deemed "essential," and are continuing their work. 

Eric Berger is senior space editor at Ars Technica. He says the crew members headed for the space station are currently in quarantine outside Moscow. The launch will take place on April 9 from a spaceport in Kazakhstan. 

"I think this week, they'll actually travel to the launch site in Baikonur, where they have a quarantine as well," Berger says.

Under stage 3 of the pandemic response plan, Johnson Space Center employees must work remotely. Moving to stage 4, which is expected soon, would means most of the facility would be closed.

"[But] Johnson Space Center will never entirely close because you've got flight controllers and flight directors who need to get into Mission Control to help fly the space station," Berger says. 

Like other companies that have contracts with the government, private space companies have been deemed "essential," which means at least some of their operations are continuing. 

"For example, a local company in Austin, Firefly, is continuing their operations, and the way they're addressing it is they've gone from one shift to two shifts," Berger says.

The profound economic effects of coronavirus on the economy could eventually spell cutbacks at NASA, Berger says, even though space exploration also boosts parts of the economy.

"All of the money that gets spent on space is actually spent here on Earth," Berger says. "And the vast majority of it is spent in the United States. And so, if you're investing in spaceflight activities, you're generally spending money on U.S. companies who employ U.S. workers."

However, the Artemis program, which intends to send humans back to the Moon, may be in jeopardy in a post-coronavirus world. Artemis is already slated to cost at least $35 billion. 

"I have to believe that money is going to be on the chopping block as the government gets out from underneath this, and then tries to figure out how to pay its bills," Berger says. 

Written by Shelly Brisbin.